On Ancestors, Slavery, and Religious Dissent

Rev. Josh Pawelek

A Rogerene Interruption“Heroes of faith in every age, far seeing, self-denying, wrought an increasing heritage, monarch and creed defying. Faith of the free!”[1]—words from 20th-century Unitarian minister Vincent Silliman. I wanted us to sing this hymn before this sermon because it points to a dynamic in our faith that at times proves confusing both to Unitarian Universalists and to those who observe us from outside. Liberalism in the United States has both political and religious roots, and continues today to express itself both politically and religiously. In both politics and religion the American liberal tradition—at its best—orients us towards freedom, liberty, justice, equality, inclusion, human rights and, I add today, environmental sustainability. In both politics and religion the American liberal tradition—at its best—calls us to protest, to dissent, to offer prophetic witness when we encounter barriers to freedom, when we encounter injustice, inequality, exclusion, human rights violations and threats to environmental sustainability. The “faith of the larger liberty” is both political and religious. It is “monarch and creed defying.”

What occasionally causes confusion is the way our religious yearnings blend with our political concerns. We might come to worship on Sunday morning looking for explicitly spiritual sustenance, and suddenly the service takes on a political tone or reflects on a political issue. How is this religious? some might wonder, forgetting that this blending is an aspect of our liberal tradition. It might happen on a Sunday morning, but it also happens at the state capitol or, as it did for me last Monday, on the corner of Barbour and Westland Streets in North Harford, advocating with other clergy and Governor Malloy for drug policy reform.

Recall that the Puritans who founded colonial New England—the Puritans from whom our Unitarian ancestors were directly descended—were both political and religious. They were religious dissenters at a time when religious dissent had immediate political implications. And of course, for their dissent they were persecuted. As children many of us learned the Puritans left England in search of religious freedom. This idea of the free church would eventually become a centerpiece of not only the American liberal tradition, but of American democracy itself. The 20th-century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams said that in America “the conception of the democratic society is … a descendent of the conception of the free church.”[2]

That’s likely overstated, but there is a connection between the Puritan quest for religious liberty and the later American quest for political liberty. What I always find ironic is that, had they had our word ‘liberal’ in their vocabulary, they would have rejected it. They were anything but liberal. They were coercive theocrats who adhered to strict Calvinist doctrine and who could not conceive of the separation of church and state. Politics and religion were completely intertwined. They established a state church and levied taxes on all citizens to pay for it. They enforced attendance at Sunday worship. Though they originated as dissenters, they could not tolerate dissent within their own society, and often confronted it with state violence.

The Puritans brought the traditions of religious freedom and dissent to the New World, but they were not responsible for carrying them forward. Throughout the colonial era, individuals, groups, sects—including eventually Unitarians and Universalists—continued to rise up in defiance of Puritan religious orthodoxy and political rule until the congregational church was dis-established in the 1800s. One such new sect which formed in the late 1600s was the Rogerenes, named for their founder, John Rogers, whose father, James Rogers, a wealthy New London, CT merchant, was the 8th Great Grandfather of UUS:E member, Fred Sawyer. Oh yes! This is the sermon James Rogers’ 21st-century Unitarian Universalist descendant purchased at last year’s UUS:E goods and services auction!

Fred leant me a copy of Allegra di Bonaventura’s 2013 book, For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England.[3] (She’s an assistant dean at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale.) Di Bonaventura weaves together the stories of five colonial New London families—the Winthrops, the Livingstons, the Hempsteads, the Rogers (who founded the Rogerenes), and the Jacksons who were slaves of African descent. The book provides an intimate and rare portrait of slavery in colonial New England—a story not often told. It also offers an intimate and rare portrait of colonial New England family life, marriage, romance, death, work, commerce, politics, law, punishment, religion, religious dissent, and religious activism. I highly recommend it and I am grateful to Fred for suggesting it.

Fred is interested in his ancestors, the Rogers, and what lessons their lives might hold for us. For me it has always been an important spiritual practice to take time to remember that we are here because others came before us and bequeathed to us, if nothing else, the gift of life. It is important to look back and honor our ancestors—both our blood relatives, and our spiritual forebears—those “heroes of faith” about whom we sing in “Faith of the Larger Liberty.”

What happens, however, when we look back and discover some difficult fact about our ancestors? For example, white people who discover that their ancestors owned slaves. Given what we know about slavery—countless lives lost, bodies violated, families separated, work stolen, language and culture assaulted—and given the reality that we still live with the legacy of slavery and witness in, for example, our criminal justice system, attempts to reinscribe it through polices that lead to mass incarceration of people of color, learning that one’s ancestors held slaves can be very disconcerting. Upon learning that the Rogers held slaves, Fred seemed not troubled, but accepting and curious. What do we do with this information? He’s interested in understanding not only what it meant to hold slaves in this era, but also what it meant to set them free. Many Rogerenes ultimately freed their slaves and, in later generations, became outspoken opponents of slavery. While the historical record isn’t entirely clear on why they began freeing their slaves, and while they did it slowly and with some ambivalence, we can make some claims about it with a high degree of certainty. First, their religious experience led them to oppose slavery. Second, there were great risks involved in such opposition. Di Bonaventura points out that Puritan clergymen, as town leaders and moral arbiters, “led in slaveholding as a group, owning bondsmen in greater numbers than did their parishioners.”[4] To oppose slavery was to oppose the theocracy itself.  Religious yearnings blending with political concerns.

The Rogerenes were adept at opposing the theocracy. Who were they? They were a religious sect responding to an ongoing experience of the Holy Spirit. The founder, John Rogers, son of James Rogers, became acquainted with an English sect known as Seventh-Day Baptists or Sabbatarians in Newport, RI while on business trips there. Sabbatarians worship on Saturday. Rogers took to it wholeheartedly, and started a Sabbatarian church in New London. Once he had converted his father and some of his siblings, he broke off from the Newport church and started his own sect which eventually became known as the Rogerenes. Described as fanatics and outlaws, they worshipped not only on Saturdays, but any day of the week and—worse—they engaged in menial labor on Sundays. They refused to pay taxes in support of the established church. They called for the separation of church and state. They welcomed men and women of every background as full congregants—African slaves, free blacks, Indians, Europeans, rich poor, men, women, children—they were truly egalitarian in this sense. They lived together, ate together, worshipped together and baptized each other in the Thames river. Di Bonaventura speculates that their experience of egalitarian spiritual community is what led them to become uncomfortable with slaveholding. It was difficult to proclaim spiritual equality while continuing to benefit from a profound social, political and economic inequality. Over the years they provided emotional, spiritual, legal and financial support to their slaves, most notably to John and Joan Jackson who were involved in 45 lawsuits in CT and MA over a period of decades, starting with John’s attempts to win Joan’s freedom, and then in their combined attempts to win their children’s freedom.

Although di Bonaventura doesn’t mention it, I’m reminded of that well-known passage from the Christian New Testment book of Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[5] They seemed to be living a version of this vision.

The Rogerenes hid nothing. they seemed undaunted by Puritan power. This is likely due to the fact that they were wealthy themselves, and as much as the Puritan hierarchy detested them, it needed their wealth to fund the ongoing development of New London. In a sense, the Rogerenes could afford to be provocative. Even so, the Puritan authorities did not sit idly by. They had the Rogerenes arrested, fined, publicly punished, incarcerated. Here’s a passage from For Adam’s Sake that gives a sense of how both sides operated. In this passage, local authorities have caught John Rogers and his brother-in-law, Samuel Fox, eel fishing on Sunday and convict them of ‘sabbath-breaking.’

Fox paid his fine…. John Rogers was not so compliant. He refused to pay and was imprisoned in the makeshift New London jail.

The Sunday after her brother’s incarceration, Bathshua (Fox’s wife) staged a protest…. She entered the meetinginghouse in the midst of Mr. Saltonstall’s morning service and loudly announced before the assembled congregation that she had performed menial labor in violation of the law. Authorities seized her immediately and put her in the stocks. The commotion of her outburst and apprehension … allowed her brother to escape. When Saltonstall later began the afternoon service, John Rogers appeared back in action—thrusting open the meetinghouse doors pushing a wheelbarrow. It must have been quite a site when the Rogerene leader rolled up toward the pulpit, shrilly calling out his wares (the wheelbarrow almost certainly contained shoes of his own making; the wealthy merchant had taken up the humble craft of cobbling as biblically sanctioned manual labor)…. Members of the congregation pounced on Rogers… Town authorities [then forced] the Rogerene leader to stand fifteen minutes on a ladder with a rope around his neck…. The exercise made little impression on Rogers and they flung him back in jail.

From his crude confinement, John Rogers hung a handwritten “Proclamation” out a window, declaring his opposition to “the Doctrines of Devils”…. For this … the authorities charged him with blasphemy, an accusation that led to his transfer to a more secure imprisonment in Hartford, where he awaited trial and certain conviction in the General Court…. At his sentencing the court required Rogers to submit a bond to secure his good behavior. Rogers deemed the order a sacrilege and refused to comply, so he remained in prison.

[He] ended up serving more than three years in prison at a time when long-term incarceration was extremely rare and highly impractical…. Once Rogers finally did finish out his term, Saltonstall, whose delicate pride had been wounded in the attacks on his sermonizing, brought a civil suit against him for defamation. Saltonstall also served on the bench of the court that determined the outcome—a conflict of interest which the colonial court blithely tolerated—so it was no surprise when the plaintiff-judge won a spectacular and highly retaliatory damage award of six hundred pounds.[6]

In discerning what the Rogerene story may mean for us 300 years later, I want to make three points. First, I don’t support the interruption of someone else’s worship service. You may recall that anti-abortion activists invaded a UU service in New Orleans last July and that I was appalled. To some degree I feel for Mr. Saltonstall’s flock. But the Rogers lived in a different era, where there was no separation of church and state, where the religious and political authority were the same, where the minister was also the judge who heard his own case and decided that case in his own favor. In such a society where alternative religious viewpoints are illegal, interrupting Sunday worship may be the only option when political and religious freedom is at stake. What resonates for me is their willingness to speak out, their willingness to accept consequences in order to express their deeply held convictions. As Unitarian Universalists we are not formal heirs of the Rogerenes, and yet something in their story, their spirit, their courage, their willingness to speak and act on their truths, their concern for freedom both religious and political—something in them resonates with our UU spirit, our UU convictions, our UU principles. They swim in that same great river that eventually became the American liberal tradition we have inherited.  They are kindred spirits in this “Faith of the Larger Liberty.”

Second, the Rogerenes apparently achieved something that was remarkable and difficult in their time, something which remains remarkable and difficult today and yet which we are called to achieve: a diverse, egalitarian, beloved spiritual community. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” We might add: there is no longer gay or straight, trans or cis, young or old, documented or undocumented, rich or poor, imprisoned or free, addicted or sober, mentally ill or mentally well—at our core we are all one, we are all connected, we are all worthy of welcome, respect and love.

Finally, the Rogers family held slaves. They clearly benefitted from holding slaves—it was one source of their wealth. And yet their religious convictions caused them to become increasingly uncomfortable with slaveholding. I said earlier we continue to live today with the legacy of slavery in America. We continue to live in the midst of extraordinary racism. I feel blessed to inherit a liberal religious tradition that calls me to examine and confront this legacy, to confront it within the church, to confront it within the halls of government, to confront it on urban and suburban streets, to confront it with that New England spirit that is both monarch and creed defying.

While we UUs are not formal spiritual descendants of the Rogerenes, I’d like to suggest that we share some of the Rogerene religious and political DNA. We might say we both descend from a common ancestor–a common free church, free faith liberal spirit. We encounter in them not only a distant cousin, but a spiritual ancestor swimming in that great river that gave rise to the faith of the larger liberty, and whose memory we can invoke as we endeavor to build that land where justice rolls down like waters, and peace like an ever-flowing stream; where all are one, all connected, and all worthy of welcome, respect and love.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Silliman, Vincent B., “Faith of the Larger Liberty,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #287.

[2] Adams, James Luther, in Stackhouse, Max, On Being Human Religiously (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976) p. 9.

[3] Di Bonaventura, Allegra, For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013).

[4] Di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake, p. 32.

[5] Galatians 3:28.

[6] Di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake, pp. 49-51.